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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cultivate your voice

If you cannot say what you mean, you will never mean what you say

By Dave Newport

 In the historically accurate and visually sumptuous 1987 Best Picture “The Last Emperor,” Peter O’Toole played an English gentleman appointed to tutor China’s young ruler in the English language.

If we all had English lessons as powerful as those from O’Toole’s character, Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston, the sustainability movement would be much further along.

In a famous scene, Emperor Puyi, then a teenager, asked Sir Johnston why he, a Scotsman, didn’t wear a skirt.  Johnston replied Scots didn’t wear skirts, they wore kilts. He added, it was very important to get those words right.

“Why are these words important,” the Emperor asked?

Sir Johnston replied, "If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say--and a gentle man should always mean what he says.”

I can do nothing to improve on that logic.

Likewise, sustainability professionals were reminded of the importance of words in one of AASHE’s best plenary presentations two years ago in Pittsburgh.  Former Unity College President Mitch Thomashow asked a crowded hall of campus sustainability professionals, "What will your voice be and how will you cultivate the voices of those around you?" 

Thomashow’s presentation essentially mirrored the message of Sir Reginald Johnston. “Find how your voice is best manifest. Writing, speaking, engaging, partnering, inspiring, whatever talent you have. Cultivate that voice.”

Say what you mean.

And yes, you can blame the existence of this blog on Mitch Thomashow. I decided to channel my publishing past as I listened to him speak that day. Now if I only had something to say…

Anyway, what do campus sustainability folks need to say?

Well, if you are reading this blog you must be somehow connected to the sustainability business; a business that is about creating change. We are all staff in The Department of Change.

And just what change do we wish to see?

Another of our favorite orators, David Orr, once set the bar on the change we need this way:

“The sustainability revolution will not fail because we are too radical, it will fail because we are too timid.”

We all know the changes needed to move our campuses and our culture to a sustainable place are very big, hairy, audacious goals: BHAGS.  Zero waste, zero carbon, zero pesticides, etc are all BHAGS. But there are many more we have not yet framed.

Sustainable leadership author Bob Doppelt talks about first-order vs second-order goals. First order goals are “10% energy reduction by 2020” or other incremental changes. Carbon neutrality, on the other hand, is a second order goal that is transformative—and radical. A BHAG.

So when I think about my voice, I think about BHAGS and the changes we need to attain “true sustainability,” whatever that is.  

Begin with the end in mind, leadership guru Steven Covey teaches. 

Voice your BHAGS.

The ten-year test

A recent Chronicle piece on writing gave advice that implies visioning your BHAGS is a prerequisite to an effective voice. The author reflected on the first rule of effective writing:

Find your voice; don't just "get published." 
James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1986. One of the questions he asks job candidates is: "What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?"

Wow. I’m pretty sure nobody will be reading this blog in ten years—or even ten days. (I comfort myself with the corollary to the above first rule of writing: “If your writing doesn’t measure up to your standards, lower your standards…”)

Anyway, a compelling voice is crucial to advocating for the durable changes we need. As all literary agents know, there are very, very few new ideas that can be sold without a fresh and compelling voice behind them.

Indeed, it can be said there are no new ideas, only new voices. Radical new voices, we hope.

Another sharp campus sustainability originator, Dedee Delongpre Johnston, wrote a great piece recently about the challenges students face in cultivating a radical voice:

One: members of this generation realize that unlimited growth, particularly unlimited economic growth based on a fixed set of inputs, is unsustainable. As one young woman put it, however, “it’s the devil we know and trying to imagine jumping off into something different is terrifying.”

Two: members of this generation want to care and want to make a difference, but are spread so thin and are so overcommitted, that they don’t act on their passions.

Three: members of this generation recognize that we need radical change, but they are paralyzed by a commitment – to their families, communities, and selves – to be practical.

Notwithstanding students’ needs to be practical, the world needs those voices for radical change, Delongpre continued:

At his recent acceptance of the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal, life-long civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte said "What is missing I think from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought... America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such a quest."

And how do we sustainabilistas educate and inspire students into forming a radical voice?

If this generation feels paralyzed by practicality, how can we empower them to think, and act, for change? In the follow-up conversations after our panel, we found that students valued the transdisciplinary solutions articulated by the presenters. The mix of economics, history, social equity, and ethics gave them a new insight into the importance of multiple perspectives and it added a pragmatic dimension to their otherwise narrowly conceived understandings of sustainability, based on discipline-specific teaching.

In short, breadth of awareness and systems thinking can empower a radical voice for change. Well, partly. The strength of the idea and how well they are voiced counts too, duh. So does consistency; it can’t be a one and done. Stake out your ground, cultivate your voice, say what you mean—and keep saying it.

Think ten years out.

“Democracy belongs to those that show up.”

Campus sustainability is going through some growing pains lately (see pretty much all previous blogs)—and radical and sustained voices for change are needed even within our own ranks. AASHE is seeking to correct its course too and the recent launch of a “Listening Project” seeks input to guide that reformation.

This is a great place to power up voice.

How do we reform AASHE and empower the sustainability movement towards the BHAGS that will be important in ten years?  What are the elements of a sustainable campus we need to fight for? How should we organize and operate to effectively advance the revolution? And what are the radical ideas we need if the revolution is not to fail from timidity?

Let us not be timid. Let us not go gentle.

Now is the time to turn up the quality—and volume—of your voice. Speak it to the Listening Project.  Speak it in your work. Speak it in your life. And keep speaking it.

The story goes that back in the day President Franklin Roosevelt met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, “You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.”

AASHE’s Listening Project will become the new normal—if we insist on it, if we keep voicing our best radical thoughts. If we make AASHE do it. We have before us a great opportunity to shape a new organization, and new operation, a new direction, and new outcomes for the future of campus sustainability. The Listening Project is great—but it’s soliciting your voice. We need to assert our voices without being asked. Long term. Not a one and done. Cultivate your voice. Then use it again and again.

Democracy belongs to those that show up.

Show up. 

Say what you mean.
See you in Nashville.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Crowdsourcing Jackie Robinson

In this day of sound bites and TV talking heads, sustainability lacks a charismatic leader
like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. We don't need one.
By Dave Newport

Be it by fate, purpose, or serendipity, the Green Sports Alliance Summit in New York City ended on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. Appropriately, the movie on my flight back to Denver was “42: The Jackie Robinson Story.”

Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?

You know, the Jackie Robinson that in 1947 broke baseball’s color barrier by becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. His life story is one of a man with incredible talent and character triumphing in the face of unspeakable racism. He went on to win all of baseball’s most coveted championships and awards.

But while he was a hall of fame athlete that changed baseball forever, Robinson’s biggest impact was off the field. He changed our hearts. He helped set in motion the struggle that MLK spoke to that day in 1963.

As MLB commissioner Bud Selig eloquently noted, baseball provided the platform for enormous social change—but it was Robinson that hit it out of the park.

Today's Jackie Robinson is?

So it is today. All of professional sports – even NASCAR (not kidding)--are stepping up on sustainability. But perhaps it takes a Jackie Robinson to headline and inspire the social change we seek.

The incredible GSA conference featured many heroes and leaders who are making a difference. It starts with leadership. Indeed, Jackie Robinson was invited into baseball and strongly supported by the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, himself an ethical, fair-minded, and tough man.

Eagles owner Christina Weiss Lurie
Likewise, sustainability is being supported by progressive sports franchise owners like New Orleans Saints’ owner Rita Benson LeBlanc and Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Christina Weiss Lurie. Both are making incredible moves on sustainability.

Lurie spoke about the ten years of effort they have invested into the Eagles stadium that has finally resulted in reaching 100% renewable power and a 99% recycling rate 365 days a year.  Wow.

And athletes are raising their game outside the lines too.

Andrew Ference bikes the Stanley
Cup through Boston
Andrew Ference is a hockey All-Star, Stanley Cup winning defenseman late of the Boston Bruins [Disclaimer: I am a lifelong and devout Bruins fan]. He lives sustainability 24/7. Among other things, he has organized 500 pro hockey players to offset their carbon emissions from their travel.

He described his approach to advancing sustainability in his keynote last year. When asked this year how well his approach is working, he said mostly he sees progress but some people call him geeky. “That's why sometimes you just have to fight.” 

Gotta love hockey players.

After the conference, we chatted with Ference in the hotel lobby while everyone else jumped into whatever New York taxi pulled up and zoomed them off to the airport. Then an hour later, a full-on electric Prius taxi pulled up for Ference.  

Richter dominated in goal for the
NY Rangers and the USA.
Mike Richter, also a hall of fame hockey player with the New York Rangers and Team USA has retired, returned to Yale for grad work in environmental policy, sits on a Sierra Club board, and directs millions of dollars in investment into renewable energy and sustainability systems.

Asked at the conference to comment on why sports fans should care about sustainability, his response re-spun Nike’s marketing maxim “if you have a body, you’re an athlete,” into “if you have a body, you’re an environmentalist.” 

                                       Much better.

Scott Jenkins won an
NCAA title in cross
country at Wisconsin.
Then there’s Scott Jenkins. Himself an All-American track star in college, he is now VP for Operations with the Seattle Mariners. Under Jenkins' leadership, the Mariners are leading the charge on sustainability—and in his spare time he founded the GSA to try and spread the mission. I just want to follow Scott around and write down everything he says—because I can’t begin to emulate all he does.

For instance, Scott walked around the conference for three days with a clear plastic bag on his back where he put all the materials waste he generated for a week. Packing it around, he said, helps him better understand his impact on the planet—and think about ways to continuously reduce it. Talk about living sustainably. Scott Jenkins is sustainability’s patron.

Clearly, these folks are modeling sustainability in a very public and significant way while working in the high visibility fishbowl of professional sports. But none of them would ever equate themselves to Jackie Robinson, to what he accomplished—or endured.

Sustainability's Next Big Thing?

So I started thinking that maybe sustainability is too heady to ever evolve a headliner that could match the sacrifice and impact of Jackie Robinson.  This is an old angst of mine. I rue that in this day of sound bites and TV talking heads, sustainability has no Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. We have plenty of leaders, but none with the franchise power of Jackie Robinson who, back in the day went from reviled outsider to the second most popular man in the nation behind only Bing Crosby.

But the GSA conference spurred a new realization: sustainability is just beginning to mature from its first focus on operations into an emphasis on integrating within fans' and other stakeholders' lives. This may be sustainability’s Next Big Thing—and it’s way big with huge potential impact. NRDC's Alan Hershkowitz laid it out. "About 13% of Americans follow science, but 65% follows sports."

Remembering that Jackie Robinson’s biggest impact was on social change off the field, sports-sustainability’s largest potential is with fans' lifestyles. And the stories are just beginning to emerge that hint at the upside:

  • The bags of compost generated from stadium organics that are passed out along with seeds to fans leaving the game. They go home and literally put down roots in the team. Then athletes help work in local community gardens and talk about local food and a clean environment. Priceless brand building and education at the same time.
  • The “Sustainable Saturday” challenge that poses scoreboard sustainability quizzes for fans to answer via text. Many text quizes exist in stadiums everywhere, but the response to the Sustainability Saturday questions is off the charts—ten times the number of other campaigns. Fans are hungry for knowledge--and the good feeling that comes with being part of the team.
  • The British soccer club that met a carbon neutrality goal by reducing stadium energy 20%--then asking their fans to reduce and document their home energy use for the 80% balance. They did. It was gold.
  • The new fan engagement sponsorship at the University of Michigan I wrote of in my last column that conducts a student competition for ideas on how to reduce UM’s environmental impact; winners get $20,000. Lots of students mobilized.
  • The NGO “Fans Without Footprints” is developing an approach to link fan engagement tactics to sponsorship revenues for local environmental projects. Nice.

We are in the opening moments of this new game, and none of these plays will by themselves win the day—but as a growing trend, there is great potential. 

Recent research by NC State sports sustainability professor Dr. Jonathan Casper shows fans do pick up good habits when they are modeled in sports. After NC State football promoted a "green game" he surveyed thousands of fans. The results: we have work to do--but the benefits are enormous. Three quarters of the fans recycled, a third remembered the sustainability message on the video board, less remembered the green mascot or other information about the game. But the take home traction was impressive. Asked if they would increase recycling in their own lives, responses graphed as shown below. Similar responses were found for questions about increasing personal energy conservation, biking, use of compostables, and picking up litter.

Question: Will you be more active with recycling in your everyday life? (n=2,700)
Likewise, the NC State data also shows a very high expectation for college athletics to step up on sustainability.

Question: Do college athletic departments have a responsibility to facilitate change in environmental behavior of their fan base? (n=2,700)
Dr. Casper conducted a much smaller scale experiment at a green baseball game, but those results were promising as well. Over half of the 37 fans interviewed indicated that the game made them want to take more personal action related to recycling, energy conservation, and water conservation. The game also increased a willingness to take action or learn more about other efforts such as carbon emissions and educational outreach opportunities. Over 54% indicated the game changed their personal perspective of environmental issues, and 77% stated their perspective has positively changed related to NC State’s environmental actions.

So instead of dragging around looking for a superstar sustainability savior, it is a team effort; we sustainabilistas should experiment with new ways to translate our operational victories into sports fans' lives. After all, we are getting to the point where we kind of know how to do zero waste, organic turf, and carbon reduction in our facilities. The bigger challenge is using those examples to inspire fans to embed sustainability in their daily lives.

Like breaking the color barrier, it is the professional teams that are leading on this for now. Fair enough and I love them for it. But remember Jackie Robinson first played at UCLA on integrated sports teams (lettering in four) before he went pro. We colleges need to get back to our roots: we’re about leadership.

In my last column, we detailed the significant extent to which incoming college freshman were choosing where to go to school, in part, based on their sense of that school’s sustainability acumen. At a minimum, sustainability is marinating students’ minds.

That awareness offers us campus sustainability and sports zealots a unique opportunity to build on the brand loyalty colleges are famous for by evolving a robust fan engagement presence.  The students are ready for it, hungry for it, demanding it in every aspect of their campus life: food, facilities, investment, skills, curriculum, sports, research, leadership, purchasing, etc.  Fan engagement should be based on the breadth of a school’s sustainability capacity in all these areas—not just sports. Sports can leverage the complete sustainability brand.
And this is big for me: Sustainability through sports answers one of my biggest concerns about sustainability itself. That is, how to truly integrate social equity into what we do, not just talk about it? Well, given that sports is already very integrated and diverse on the field and in the stands, we gain a powerful point of entry into the breadth of society, not just the greenies.  We can engage with all types of people in a context that is relaxed and fun—and with content that is helpful in their lives. We can do it without preaching.  We have the opportunity to build community sustainability around team and lifestyle.  Jeez, NASCAR and NFL fans are embracing it. That's the melting pot. What are we waiting for?

Where have you gone Jackie Robinson?

There will never be another Jackie Robinson. And we may never see a sustainability leader with that kind of juice. I have stopped hoping for one. We have to find ways to be successful without being led by Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, or Mother Teresa. Not going to happen.

Let's work on what we can control.

We can crowdsource Jackie Robinson.  Collectively we can impact society using the sports platform Robinson stood on. Jackie Robinson was then, and we are now.  He is we.

As sustainability professionals bring their creativity and passion to bear on evolving new fan engagement techniques, we harness the planet's biggest stage in service of sustainability. Collectively we change the game.

Jackie lives on in all of us. So channel your Jackie Robinson. Smell the turf. Feel the bat in your hands. Dig in your cleats. See the ball big and fat hanging over the plate. Take it to the fence. Take a trot around the bases. Then tip your hat to the fans.

It's all about the fans.